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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dimi Mint Abba and Khalifa Ould Eide: "Moorish Music From Mauritania"

Dimi Mint Abba and Khalifa Ould Eide
"Moorish Music from Mauritania"
World Circuit (1990)
1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

I looked forward to listening to this album for two reasons. One, I’ve recently become interested in the music of North Africa thanks to the neo-traditional music of Tinariwen out of Mali (Mauritania shares some Arabic roots with Mali). Two, this album was difficult to get my hands on.

One of the best treats is listening to the evolution of Mauritanian music as the album progresses. I would separate the 11 tracks into three chapters: traditional, modern and neo-traditional.

The first five tracks are what I would consider to be traditional. Abba handles most of the vocals, singing in surprisingly powerful Hassiniya Arabic, while also playing the ardin, a 14-string calabash harp. Eide, her husband, plays the tidinit, a four-string plucked instrument. The duo’s daughters provide background vocals and percussion. The strings impressed me most. Abba and Eide play rapid, intertwining parts that defy traditional Western time signatures on their respective instruments. The lyrics anchor themselves in traditional Muslim religious praise, such as “The Tortoise’s Song,” which details just how God blessed the tortoise with his shell. An interesting trend I noticed in these songs is that the percussion and background vocals always kick in just around the two-minute mark.

Tracks 6-10 travel towards modernity in two ways. First, Eide replaces the tidinit with an electric guitar. His licks are far from that of Tinariwen, but the difference within the album is easy to detect. Secondly, the tracks diverge from praise and into modern politics. “Independence” speaks of Mauritania’s relatively recent split from France and the meaning of “Oh Lord Bring Apartheid Crashing Down” is obvious. When this album was released in 1990, Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment was very much a big deal, and this song demonstrates the solidarity of two African nations that are physically and culturally thousands of miles apart.

The final track brings it all together into what I would label “neo-traditionalism.” The lyrics go back to a traditional religious theme, but Eide incorporates the electric guitar for a modern take. The traditional music of Mauritania is great, but it’s exciting to see two eras melded into something bigger.

INTERESTING FACT: Abba's father actually penned the Mauritanian national anthem.

"The Tortoise's Song"

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